Prologue: Cheaters never prosper.
This old adage, recited by children for years and years, highlights the concept of divine justice identified within the Torah. Even in this week’s Parsha, the Torah tells us “and when you sell anything to your fellow man or buy from your fellow man, you shall not sheet one another (Vayikra 25:14). Sforno comments that god is both the god of the buyer and the seller, and as such, He does not want anyone to cheat neither buyer nor seller.
How are we to achieve this process? Where are we to find godliness in the business world?
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin (Growth through Torah) offered a valuable insight. When selling something to another person or when buying from someone, recalling that the creator is his god will help us be careful not to deceive him in any manner. For if a prince, or the son of a world leader or to purchase something from you or sell something to you, you’d be very careful not to cheat him. Your actions would be guided by therefore the respect of his father or fear of retribution from him. According to Rabbi Pliskin, this should be our attitude and monetary dealings with other people. We need to recall that Hashem is their Heavenly Father and he commands you to be honest with them.
Rabbi Nachman of Kossov once asked how it is possible to think of Hashem when one is involved in business? He observed that of people find it easy to think about business matters when in front of Hashem (davening) it should reason that it be equally as easy to think about Hashem when involved in business.
When we consider Hashem, it is not the cheater, but rather we, who will ultimately prosper.
A story is told of a certain individual, Reuven, who owned a parcel of land that used to be prosperous but fell into disuse. In the course of time, it became a place to throw garbage, a virtual junkyard. All attempts to develop the land failed since the necessary permits had never been obtained. The price of the land alternately dropped, and another individual, Shimon, bought it on the cheap.
A few short days later, news of a brand new luxury development on the site became apparent. Along the way, Shimon had made a secret deal with the City Council to approve the development. Upon purchase of the land, Shimon put his plan to work. Reuven claimed that he had been ripped off. Shimon countered that since routine had agreed to the deal it should stand. Who is correct?
The Sefer HaChinuch (337) notes that in the same fashion that a seller may not cheat a buyer, a buyer may also not cheat a seller. This is gleaned by the Talmud (Bava Metzia 51a) based on the Torah’s use of the phrase “Ish Et Achiv” (VaYikra 25:14) which places the responsibility to avoid cheating on both buyer and seller. Accordingly, Shimon acted inappropriately and violated the law.
However, one question remains. Does this violation invalidate the original land sale?
The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 227:29) notes the rules of Onaah – of cheating – do not apply to real estate transactions – Ein Onaah L’Karkaos. And as such, it appears as if the deal should stand.
However, the Talmud (Kesubos 97a) tells a story about a famine in the city of Neherda which caused the price of grain to inflate. The inflation was so great that people had to sell their homes in order to purchase food. After the homes were sold, word spread that huge numbers of grain ships were right off the coast and would shortly bring grain to the city. Clearly the townspeople who could not have known about the ships, wanted their homes back. Had they known about the grain they certainly would never have sold their homes. Rav Nachman sided with their opinion noting that their original sale was in error. There was an aberration, the ships should have been there and if they had, the sale would not have gone through.
Based on the above, Rav Zilberstein (V’Haarev Na, vol. 1) paskins that this sale too, is invalid. Reuven did not know the true value of this land due to the private City Council deal. He also could not have ascertained the true value. Accordingly, he is entitled to his field and the sale is thus canceled.